Thursday, April 24, 2014

Story time

A work in progress (lying dormant for years, hasnt progressed beyond preliminary drafts phase) but might as well leave this here. My take on the whole 'Rapture of the Nerds" thing: Transhumanism, Singularity, etc. With this, I welcome myself back to my blog. This is cheating of course since this isnt a new piece, but whatre you gonna do?

Graven Images

His mother called it The Eye, and Guzman remembers being scared of it when he was a child. It was portrait of a pale, un-Semitic-looking Jesus, smooth-faced, narrow-nosed, with a wispy beard, long shoulder-length hair parted in middle. Jesus had a sorrowful stare that followed him wherever he went. The painting always seemed to be looking disapprovingly at him and he didn't like to look at it if he can help it but he’d steal glances at it from time to time and sure enough, Jesus would be looking at him, sadness in his baleful stare, disappointed at him for some reason, and there was always a reason – he was a naughty boy whose curiosity always got the better of him. He remembered The Eye was the first thing anyone saw when they walked into that room, the room where all the antique religious figures and paintings were in their old house in the country, the house where they lived until he was seven when they moved to the city. The Eye was right on top of a wooden altar where candles in red glass were always lit. On the altar were a small free-standing crucifix and a small Virgin Mary figurine about sixteen inches tall that his mother called Lourdes, the mantle on the altar made from crocheted cotton yarn with little red doilies woven into it. Also in that room were antique religious figures in wood, stone, and plaster of Paris, family heirlooms over a hundred years old, some of them life-sized. There was the angel Gabriel, a Blessed Virgin Mary, and a dead Jesus beneath a purple blanket with gold thread edging lying in state in a glass coffin that they lent to the Church for Lenten processions. There was a Santo NiƱo, the baby Jesus, holding a scepter in one hand and a globe in the other, clothed in a tunic adorned with gold thread. Old ladies would come to the house and pray before those figures, his grandmother and mother serving them refreshments of coffee and small biscuits that came out of a bucket-sized can.

All these religious figures were in a room in his penthouse now, in what he calls the antique room, each in its own glass case and lighted from above with little halogen bulbs that gave them their own haloes. He didn't pay them much attention before – he has severed his ties with the Roman Church – but now, after the aneurysm that left him in a coma for several days, he looks at them and it triggers memories of his childhood. And not only does he remember them, he remembers them as if the memories are still fresh in his mind. He remembers everything: what the old room smelled like and what old ladies who prayed there everyday looked like. He even remembers their perfume that smelled of roses and how it made his head hurt. The aneurysm probably unlocked those memories, and several others but for some reason, he couldn't remember the aneurysm itself or what happened in the days just prior to that. He came out of the coma in his home where he had a specially-built room with hospital equipment. The room was for his mother who in her later years suffered from various ailments that old people were often afflicted with. No sense sending her to the hospital when he could well afford to have her at home where he could be with her so he hired a nurse to take care of her and her doctor visited her everyday. He never thought he’d get to use that room himself.
Also in the antique room was an old dresser with a mirror framed in dark hardwood carved with flowers and fruit. The mirror had four cracks in it that ran right through the middle and met at a point at the bottom of the mirror. He looked at his reflection through the cracks and he thought it made him look like a cubist painting. He remembered how the mirror got those cracks and how his mother punished him by hitting him repeatedly with a wooden hanger. She hit him so hard that the hanger broke, and he laughed despite his tears when that happened – he thought it was funny – which infuriated his mother even more, and she had him kneel for two hours in front of The Eye with his arms outstretched to his sides like Jesus on the cross, and Jesus looked at him disapprovingly from the framed portrait. But more than that punishment, he was scared about the seven years of bad luck he was cursed with for having broken the mirror. He knew that was the fate of someone who had broken a mirror because he saw it in a cartoon on TV. He would be cursed with bad luck, he knew, till he was fourteen, and so he spent the next seven years mostly alone with books his father bought for him – a 24 volume Collier’s Encyclopedia and the 12 volume Collier’s Classics – and his watercolors and crayons. All these vivid memories came flooding out of the folds and creases of his brain where they remained stuck for years until the popped vein in his head brought them up to his consciousness again.

“Sir, Mr. Takada is here to see you. I asked him to wait for you in the study,” his personal assistant said on the intercom.

“I’ll be down in 20 minutes. Make him comfortable. Thanks, Susan.” Guzman showered and dressed and went down. Ben Takada was having coffee and reading a magazine when he walked into the study. “Hello, Ben,” Guzman said.

“Gus, how are you? Ready to go back to work?” Ben said and he shook Guzman’s hand heartily. Ben is Guzman’s right-hand man at Biocore. They built the company together, mostly through Ben’s genius, but he liked to think he helped. Ben is a highly respected medical doctor and neuroscientist who has done pioneering research on the brain’s inner workings. But even though they started Biocore together, their relationship is purely professional. He’s just not the kind of person Guzman could get close to. In fact, Guzman is close to very few people.

“I’m feeling all right,” Guzman said. “Except that for some reason, I don't seem to remember much about what’s been going on back at Biocore. You have to bring me up to speed.”
“All right, where do I start?,” Ben said as they sat down. “Do you remember anything about the joint venture with Lambda Technologies?”

“Barely,” Guzman said. “I remember we were talking to them about developing supercomputers.”

“Modeled on the human brain, yes,” Ben said. “They’re interested in our research on our memory storage systems and our nanotechnology, and we were in talks with them about starting a new company to develop computers that can process information much like the human mind can. It's pretty much a done deal. You were in all the meetings with them before your ... I’ll send you the paperwork so you can look them over. They’re willing to give us some more time given the circumstances.”

“Ok. What else are we working on?”

“Well, we might have a breakthrough with that research I was telling you about – the one about storing the brain’s memories electronically onto one of our 3-d memory storage devices?”

“I remember you saying that we’ve solved all technical obstacles to achieving that.”

“Yes we have. There’s just the ethical ones.”

They talked some more, about Biocore mostly, but also about other things as well: sports scores, gossip about other executives. Guzman remembered enjoying sports and gossip, but they didn't seem enjoyable now. He let Ben keep talking, though. He seemed to be happy to do so.

Ben stayed for dinner on Guzman’s insistence. Before he left, Ben said, “Gus, you know Biocore is everything to me. It’s my life. Unlike you, I don't have much of a life outside its offices and its labs.” Ben paused. Like Guzman, he also had trouble connecting to people; at heart they were two nerds – an appellation they carry with pride, by the way – and occasions like this, where anything close to their true feelings would be shared, are marked with almost autistic awkwardness. Finally, he put his hand on Guzman’s shoulder, “What I’m saying is, I’m glad you’re okay. I can’t run Biocore without you.”


He sits in the antique room. He has a new fascination with memory after that conversation with Ben, and looking at all the graven images in it triggers memories of a childhood he thought he had left behind. Being able to record all memories in a man’s brain by copying the entire brain molecule by molecule, atom by atom, storing the information… it’s fascinating. They use the nano machines Guzman developed to copy the brain’s circuitry and these nanobots send electronic signals that enable the entire brain to be stored as an electronic copy with all its memories stored within. It’s a perfect copy, with all the connections intact.

“But you’d have to create an entire world for the virtual person to be in. Aside from that, you’d have to store other virtual entities – other virtual people – for it to interact with. I imagine it would be mighty lonely if you didn't do that,” Guzman said.

“You don't have to. The mind could create everything itself, including other people, and it wouldn't know the difference. It will shield itself from the knowledge that the environment and all the other conscious entities in it are its creation,” Ben said in full lecture mode. Ben inadvertently lapses back to his roots in academia from time to time.

“You mean like when we dream,” Guzman said. “Everything we interact with in a dream exists only in our heads, but we won't know it until we wake up.”

“Exactly like a dream,” Ben said. “But in this case, the dream is real to the mind stored electronically. It's a dream it never wakes up from, created from what’s already in the mind. And even if it isn’t in the mind, the mind will be able to create it. If you haven't been to Zimbabwe for instance, and you go to Zimbabwe in the virtual world, your mind will create Zimbabwe.”

“And if he dies in his virtual world?,” Guzman asks.

“Then that virtual world is finished. We on the outside will be able to tell when that world has flat-lined. We’ll just run it again, and the stored memories will be able to create an entirely new virtual world, different from the previous one perhaps, but still based on what he recognizes as real. That’s what’s great about it. It’s virtual immortality, albeit a serial kind where you can lead one virtual life after another ends. And you know what is really fascinating about this? We might be able to take those recorded memories, and store them in a real human brain.”


Guzman looks at his wife Vera lying asleep beside him and it’s like looking at a stranger. He remembered seeing her at his bedside when he first came out of his coma. She was holding his hand and smiling with tears in her eyes and he remembered how he recoiled in horror. She looked exactly like Vera but it was like looking at an impostor. He asked her who she was and what she has done with his wife. The look in his eyes upset her and she turned to Ben who told her to give him more time to recover.

He looks at her now and he can’t help thinking that this isn’t his wife and he knew that to think that was crazy, but he couldn't shake the feeling that this wasn't her. But she looked like Vera, she sounded like Vera, she even smelled like Vera, and had all her quirks and mannerisms. If this were an impostor, then she was an extremely gifted one. But he remembered loving his wife and he can’t seem to feel anything for this woman lying asleep beside him. He lay beside her and smelled her hair. He remembered doing that, just lying beside her and smelling her hair, and he remembered that the scent of her hair, of her neck, made everything right in the world. Things could be falling apart outside but he could lay beside Vera and smell her hair, and everything would be fine. He tried doing that to try to trigger memories, and with those memories maybe the feelings will come back. He put his arm around her like he used to do and buried his face in her hair like he used to do, and inhaled. She smelled right, of jasmine and lavender, and her own unique scent that reminded him of a baby’s; caramel and cream and coconuts. Nothing. All it triggered were memories of what he felt then but couldn't feel now.

Vera stirred beside him and purred like a contented cat. She turned to him and smiled with her eyes still closed and stroked his arm, then his back, then his thighs and buttocks, until finally her hand came between his legs. Vera sighed and that triggered something in him, but it wasn't what he was looking for. He gave in nevertheless.

He came to work that same morning. It was raining outside and he waited for his car in the lobby. His car pulled over and the doorman walked him to the car with an umbrella. “Fine weather we’re having, eh sir?” he said. Guzman stared at him for a couple of seconds not quite knowing what to make of what the doorman said, but he smiled at him and got into the car.

The trip to the office took about 15 minutes in the traffic and he spent that time wondering about that woman who looked like his wife – who is his wife, he decided, or at least tried to convince himself. He decided to be nice to her since she was clearly upset when he treated her like a stranger. Her name is Vera and she is my wife, he thought. It’s the aneurysm; my brain hasn't fully recovered.

The office lobby had a huge streamer welcoming him back, executives lined up to meet him to shake his hand and wish him well, telling him how happy they were that he was okay. He returned their smiles and handshakes and went to his office. He asked that they take the streamer down.

On his desk was a folder with a yellow Post-It note stuck on it that said, ‘The Lambda proposal’ and it was signed ‘Ben’. When he finished reading it, he stretched out on his chair and looked around his office. It was all dark wood and it reminded him of his antique room, and on the wall to his right, above the round meeting table, was a painting he bought in Spain that was supposed to be by Juan Luna although it was unsigned. It was a painting of Jesus and his apostles Peter, James, and John, with Jesus standing before them with arms outstretched and they were seated in front of him, except that instead of human heads, they had animal heads on the human bodies. Jesus’ head was the head of a ram, and he has his heart exposed outside of his chest in the manner of the Sacred Heart paintings, although it didn't have the lance wound and the crown of thorns yet. The apostles’ heads were of a lion, an eagle, and a bull. He remembered being moved by this painting when he first saw it, and at the same time amused by the artist’s quirky treatment of his subject matter, but looking at it now, he feels nothing for it, like he feels nothing for Vera, and it upset him. He remembered walking in the great galleries of the world and it was like being in church; there was something spiritual he felt about the Da Vincis, the Botticellis, the Poussins he saw there, a sense of reverence he felt. He walks over to the bar, pours himself a cognac, and drinks. He let it warm his mouth, then his chest as he swallowed; the taste of grapes and flowers and oak lingered in his mouth as the alcohol hit him. That tastes good, he thought, and relaxed. He wasn't going to let things worry him. He’s alive when he could’ve been dead. That’s enough.


“Would you do it?” Ben asked. They were having cognac in Guzman’s office at the end of the work day like they always did. “If we could make a replica of your mind and store it, you could in theory, live forever. As long as the plug isn’t pulled of course.”

Guzman thought about it. Having been near death, he thought the answer was obvious. He almost died, and he could drop dead any moment from another vein popping in his head, and he’s convinced he’d rather be alive than dead. “Yes,” he said. “In a heartbeat. You?”

“I don't know,” Ben answered. “I’d like to think one lifetime on this earth is enough, then I’m ready to move on. I know you don't believe in the afterlife, but I do. And I’m expecting something different from life here. Living forever here, well, it's just not the kind of immortality I’m looking for.”

“Fair enough. You want to live forever with God,” Guzman said. “But let me tell you something: all those stories about near-death experiences – floating, seeing your departed loved ones, your life flashing before your eyes, and the loving presence of a being of light? I didn't experience any of those. Nothing. It’s quite possible that there really is nothing after this.”

“Even if that’s true, I’d rather be dead,” Ben said. “Life here, it sucks, man. Wars, disease, famine, Britney Spears...” Ben deadpans.

Ben’s rare attempt at humor elicited no reaction from Guzman. He said, “You mentioned being able to input those recorded memories into a real brain. How close are we to that?”

“We’re practically there. We can use the DNA code as a template. We use our nanobots to copy the brain onto an electronic medium, then we can translate the data into an actual DNA sequence. And with our advances in cloning, we can keep transferring memories onto a new body as the old one ages or wears out. We’ve solved all the technical problems. Like I said, all that’s left are the ethical ones, and they’re still arguing about those in Congress.”

When he got home that night, Vera was waiting for him. He still felt uneasy about her, feeling like he couldn't trust her, but he fought the feeling, and smiled at her. “I made adobo. I hope you’re hungry cause I made a lot,” she said laughing nervously. Maybe he seemed like a stranger to her, too.

“Yes, I’m starving,” he said. They ate and Vera did most of the talking but Guzman tried his best to seem interested and kept his end of the conversation up. If I go through the motions, he thought, maybe it’ll all come back. He couldn't help noticing the pained look in Vera’s eyes. One part of him didn't like to see Vera sad, but another part of him doesn't seem to care, and he’s afraid the part that doesn't care is winning. But he was determined to fix that. One thing unmistakable is that this woman, who looks like his wife, who is his wife, he says to himself, loves him. And he wants to love her back, because that was what he remembers doing, because that was what made his life worth living.


“So what do you say, Blessed Mary ever Virgin?,” Guzman asks the wooden figure under the glass with the peeling paint. “Should I agree to the Lambda proposal?” He doesn't find it odd that he who has disavowed all belief in the supernatural has all these religious figures in his own home. There was a time when he ascribed to these figures some kind of godly power, since that was what his mother told him. They would pray to them everyday, kneeling in front of them, and he would peer at The Eye, and it would be looking at him and he was careful to not let The Eye show that his knees were hurting lest The Eye gets mad at him. But now he knows they’re just figures of wood and stone and plaster. He keeps them here, in the antique room, encased in glass so that none could touch them, not even the little old ladies with their rosaries who wore out the Virgin Mary’s paint job could touch them. He keeps them here as his prisoners just as they have imprisoned him. Prisoners, hah! They’re inanimate objects! They neither know nor care whether they’re imprisoned or not. They hear nothing, see nothing, feel nothing. They’re just empty soulless lumps of inanimate matter. The Israelites had the right idea when they forbade the making of images, the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or of those things that are in the waters under the earth, lest the people bow down and worship them.

He remembers worshipping art, if one could call it worship. He was moved by works of art. But earlier this morning, he was viewing the art collection at the Biocore gallery, and he felt then as he feels now about these figures in the antique room. They’re just soulless inanimate objects, bits of paint on canvass.

And Vera? Was she a soulless inanimate object, too? He certainly didn't feel anything for her. Nothing of what he knew he used to feel for her, and it troubled him that he couldn't since he remembered the pleasure, the exhilaration he felt at the sight of her, at the sound of her voice, at her scent, the ache and longing he felt whenever he thought of her. It troubled him, but he didn't care. He can’t explain it.

He looked at The Eye and it returned his stare, with its empty stare that was really looking at nothing at all he knew, and he wondered if he has the same empty stare when he looked at Vera. He looked at the Blessed Virgin Mary, and she too was looking at him. And so was the Angel Gabriel and the Baby Jesus. The dead Jesus had his eyes open and was sitting up and looking at him, too. Then everything went white and he closed his eyes. The light of their haloes blinded him.


He opened his eyes and the white light was still there and he could see nothing else. Then there was an eclipse as a dark orb covered the light, and the dark orb moved closer. He heard the dark orb saying, “Yes, he’s waking up now.” Then the dark orb said, “Gus?” Faintly at first, then louder and clearer. “Gus?”

When his eyes had adjusted, he saw – he couldn't remember for a second – he saw... Ben. It was Ben. There were others in the room as well; doctors and nurses, he assumed, although they weren’t wearing the white coats doctors and nurses usually wore. “Where am I? What happened?,” Guzman asked.

“You’re home now. You had an aneurysm. Susan found you in the antique room. You have been in a coma for five days.”

“Another aneurysm?”

Ben looked at the doctor for a second, wondering if Guzman heard him correctly. “What do you mean ‘another one?’ You had an aneurysm. It was your first. You’ve been in a coma for...”

“I just recovered from an aneurysm, what are you...?” Confused, Guzman looks at the faces of those around him. “But I... This can’t be my first. I remember waking up and you telling me I had an aneurysm. I was in a coma and I woke up and you were there and...”

“Just take it easy,” Ben said. “Get some rest.”

Guzman put his hands over his eyes, willing himself to make sense of all this. “Where’s Vera?,” he finally said. It troubled him that she wasn't there.

“She had to go out for a bit. I called her. She’s on her way. She never left your side, Gus.”

That sounded right, he thought. That sounded like what Vera would do. She wouldn't leave his side just as he knew he wouldn't leave hers. Everything was a dream, he thought. I was in a coma and everything from the last several days was all in my head. He felt a sense of relief that what he felt, or rather didn't feel, for Vera wasn't real. He grabbed Ben’s arm hard. Ben winced. “I want to make sure you’re real, Ben. I had a weird coma.” Guzman smiled.

Ben returned his smile. “Well you’re going to be fine now. The doctors did a great job. And by the way, this is as real as it can get.”


He knew that voice. He looked in the direction of that voice and he saw her. She came to his side and held his hand and she was smiling at him with tears in her eyes, and he recoiled in horror. “Who are you? What have you done with my wife? Ben! Where’s Vera? Who is this woman?”

“Gus, it’s me.”

Guzman looked at the woman wide-eyed with fear and rage. She looked like Vera but he knew it wasn't her. “Ben, is this a trick? What have you done with my wife, Ben?”

Vera buried herself in Ben’s arms, while the doctor injected something into his I.V. drip. He grew light-headed and calm. He went to sleep.

He was in the antique room amidst those soulless prisoners in glass which has become his refuge since he recovered from his aneurysm. He looked at his reflection through the broken mirror, the one that made him look like a cubist painting. Seven years bad luck, he thought. He remembered where the superstition came from. The Romans thought that the mirror captured a part of you and the reflection was your soul. Breaking the mirror then means breaking your soul and it traps it in the mirror. And since they believed it took seven years for the soul to renew itself, to make itself whole. Silly Romans.

In the mirror, he saw The Eye’s reflection. He turned to look at it, and Jesus returned his soulless stare.
He came to work that day. The office lobby had a huge streamer welcoming him back, executives lined up to meet him to shake his hand and wish him well, telling him how happy they were that he was okay. He returned their smiles and handshakes. He asked that they take the streamer down.

He headed straight to Ben’s office. Went inside without knocking. Ben stood up to meet him. “When were you going to tell me?,” he asked Ben before he could even start with the pleasantries.

Ben searched Guzman’s eyes and they were burning through his. He sat down heavily like the weight of the world were suddenly dumped on his shoulders. “Forgive me,” he said. He couldn't look at Guzman.
Guzman turned around and left. “It was what you wanted,” he heard Ben say before he closed the door behind him.


Guzman sat in the antique room and rested the gun on his lap, feeling its dead weight there for a minute, then he lifted it, checked the safety then he let it dangle at his side, swinging it to and fro like a pendulum on a grandfather clock, ticking away the time. He looked at The Eye and saw Jesus looking at him, but he didn't see disapproval in his eyes. He was just watching him, his pale face non-judgmental. Then with both hands he pointed the gun at his forehead, his right thumb on the trigger. He was looking down the gun barrel and he could see the rifling in the barrel spiraling down into the darkness and he got ready to pull the trigger so he could spiral into the darkness himself. He thought of Vera. The Vera that was before this… Before this.

He put the gun down. He stood up and looked at The Eye and Jesus looked back at him still non-judgmental and he looked around at the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel and the Baby Jesus with the world in his hand and all the other smaller figures in glass cases with their halogen haloes and they didn't seem to judge him either, were ignoring him in fact. The dead Jesus was still quite peacefully dead. He felt a sense of belonging: I am that. He looked at his reflection in the broken mirror and the cubist painting looked back at him and it was nodding its reassurance. Seven years bad luck, he thought. Jesus rose again after three days. Just seven more years then we’ll take it from there.

He walked back to the bedroom, unloaded the gun, and put it in the safe behind the framed canvas with bits of paint on it that he knew was a Hernando Ocampo painting he was once fond of. Then he went to dinner.

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